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The Unsinkable Burger Stand

by B.A. Nilsson on April 4, 2012 · 2 comments

Jumpin’ Jack’s Drive-In, Collins Park, 393-6101, jumpinjacksdriveininc.com. Serving daily 11-9:30. AE, MC, V.

Cuisine: burgers and fries

Entrée price range: Do you care? All right: $2 (hot dog) to $9.50 (shrimp dinner)

Ambiance: al fresco


Among the horrifying images of Hurricane Irene’s devastation last summer was the sight of Jumpin’ Jack’s under water, many of its picnic tables rafting down the Mohawk, its ice cream building flooded so high that coolers floated up and cracked the ceiling.

Owner Mark Lansing was quick even then to put things in perspective, redirecting many of the offers of help to the hard-hit areas of Schoharie County and elsewhere. With the help of flood insurance, a loyal crew of workers and a mild winter, he worked doggedly to get the place ready for its traditional spring opening this year.

It took place the last Thursday in March, with an appropriate amount of media hoopla.

Photo by B.A. Nilsson

Although we tend to give a place three months to get itself up and running before visiting to review, we figure that the nature of Jumpin’ Jack’s would allow a week to suffice. Besides, we were hungry.

It’s not great food. Never has been. And that has never been the issue. I have other stops for gourmet burgers, smoked burgers, fast-food burgers, whatever manifestation of beef between buns proves desirable, if you know what I mean.

Jumpin’ Jack’s is an experience. To those who grew up with it, it’s summer. I learned of it soon after I moved to Schenectady in 1980, and it’s been a seasonal staple since. It was the third restaurant Metroland reviewed when this column began in 1986, and we’ve visited it a couple of times since, the last one in 1994.

Jumpin’ Jack’s is a celebration. It’s a place where you can linger on long summer evenings, a date-enhancing carnival atmosphere inspiring romance (marriages owe their origins to this restaurant) and a peaceful sense of “It’s always been like this.”

Jumpin’ Jack’s is history, dating back to 1952 when Jack Brennan opened an ice cream stand on the site. He added the burgers five years later, which was successful enough to warrant construction of the Charcoal Pit—the building from which you order burgers now—in 1964, which explains the architectural style. Brennan sold the business to then-general manager Lansing in 1976.

But my favorite piece of the place’s history occurred across the street (sort of), when a McDonald’s opened on Scotia’s Mohawk Avenue. People fretted that it would spell the end of Jumpin’ Jack’s, that a seasonal place could hardly compete with a year-round monster—yet the McDonald’s closed in 2005 (and sat vacant until the county bribed the corporation recently to tear it down).

And Jumpin’ Jack’s endures.

If you’re a loyalist, you need hear no more from me than that the place is back and looks splendid after its refurbishment. The crew once again runs that grill like a well-oiled machine, the aroma of that sizzling meat pleasantly permeating everything.

If you’re new to the place, here’s how it works. Find a parking place—there are plenty. Don’t be intimidated by the size of the line. It moves surprisingly quickly. Study the menu! Make up your mind: You’ll be many people back from the head of that line when one of the Jumpin’ Jack’s crew startles you by hollering a request for your order.

You’re ordering everything but drinks here. I like the Jackburger ($5), which has two burger patties and topping of slaw. More of the charcoal flavor comes through. A single burger is $2.50, cheese is an extra two bits, a double cheeseburger is $5.50. Fries are $2, onion rings (the real thing) and twister fries are $2.25. Want to make a meal of it with fries, rings, cole slaw, roll and butter? Dinners are $8.25 if they’re based on ground beef, fried clams, chicken tenders or a slab of fried fish, slightly more for grilled chicken breast ($8.50) or shrimp ($9.50).

Some of the alternatives you might not spot right away include a veggie burger ($3.50), hot dog ($2), steak sandwich ($5.25), Italian sausage sandwich ($4), melted cheese sandwich ($2), fried dough ($3.25) and nacho cheese chips ($3).

Once you reach the head of the line, your order is ready to be assembled on its fiber tray and slid to the drinks station, which is also where you pay. I’m pleased to see that credit cards are accepted. I know the damn things exact a painful cost, but they sure help forgets-to-carry-money me.

Then you settle in at one of the shiny picnic tables and dig in. It becomes a Proustian experience. The scent of the burger, the crunch of the rings, the reassuring lap of grease on the tongue bring you back to summer after long-gone summer, sitting right here, when your kids were young or your parents were younger.

And it’s just the right size of a meal to give a comfortable sense of fullness without destroying the never-ending need for ice cream.

Which is served in an adjacent building, the one that took the biggest hit. It’s a Phoenix, or whatever it might have been that rose from a flood. It looks great inside. I toured it to enjoy its fresh new look, but then I had to get a cone as well, a vanilla-orange combo, and I’m pleased to report that it’s the only twist you’ll find in this story—everything else is status quo ante.